In the March 30 episode of Capitalisn’t, Bethany McLean and Luigi Zingales discuss the Twitter Files, why so much of the mainstream media has ignored them, and what they reveal about how we receive and process information in the age of social media. In preparing for their conversation, McLean and Zingales found lacking a comprehensive review of what the Twitter Files actually contained. The research prepared by Utsav Gandhi (as of March 13, 2023) contains thematic summaries of the Files, which readers can find attached at the end of this article.
Beginning in December 2022, Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, began delivering caches of internal data to a select group of journalists and writers. The data disclosed how Twitter’s employees handled Covid-19 narratives and misinformation; the Hunter Biden laptop controversy; the shadow bans of controversial Twitter users; the decision to ban former President Donald Trump after the January 6 Capitol riot; and Twitter’s relations with U.S. intelligence services, who often requested that Twitter take action on individual accounts and narratives. Despite the breadth of the “Twitter Files” and their ostensibly scandalous content, mainstream media has not provided much coverage of their content. The reasons these mainstream outlets and their writers have provided are manifold and include an inability to verify the content of the Files and the interpretation that the revelations are either old news or amount to a “nothingburger.”
In their latest Capitalisn’t episode, co-hosts Luigi Zingales, a Chicago Booth professor and ProMarket’s co-founder, and journalist and author Bethany McLean agreed that the mainstream media has erred in ignoring the Twitter Files.
The course of their conversation falls broadly into three sections: 1) questions raised by the Twitter Files that the hosts believe traditional media and left-leaning sectors of the American public should be discussing 2) why so much of the traditional media and left has ignored the Twitter Files, and 3) how the issues the Twitter Files raise can be ameliorated.
One of the facets of the Twitter Files that McLean says surprised her the most was “the fact that it is so polarizing…The reality is it shouldn’t be polarizing…it’s just pretty shocking and scandalous regardless of where you sit on the spectrum. And what I mean by that is just the sheer number of times that Twitter has intervened to change the discussion, to block certain news, to make sure certain people aren’t hurt, to leverage some discussions so that they are louder than others.”
Zingales was particularly interested in the revelations of how Twitter handled Covid information. It is one thing to debate if U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders is a socialist or if former President Donald Trump is a fascist, Zingales said, but questions of science can be empirically tested. There is a process of discovery, but in the end, if a massive body of data suggests that the Covid vaccine is effective, an individual, scientifically unsubstantiated opinion claiming otherwise does not count for much.
Twitter did an awful job on the management of Covid information, Zingales continued: “They even blocked objectively [correct] information for the fear that it can be misinterpreted by the public…You don’t want to tell the truth because you are afraid that the truth can be misinterpreted. That’s the ultimate big brother kind of approach.”
Zingales specifically cited two cases revealed in the Twitter Files where Twitter suppressed information that was still worth debate. The first was a tweet by Brett Giroir, a former acting commissioner for the FDA under Trump, who tweeted that natural immunization is superior to vaccination. As writer and former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson noted, Giroir wrote in the same tweet that if someone was not naturally immunized, they should get vaccinated. Twitter labeled Giroir’s tweet as misleading, prohibiting users to like, share or reply. In the second case, Twitter similarly actioned a tweet from a Harvard epidemiologist who tweeted that those with prior Covid infections and children did not need to be vaccinated. Both of Twitter’s actions in these cases were prompted by Scott Gottlieb, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner from 2017-2019 who joined Pfizer’s board of directors in June 2019.
McLean added that there remains an ongoing debate on if natural immunity is as effective as vaccination or if children should be vaccinated against Covid. If there is still an ongoing debate within the scientific community, there should have been a debate back at the time, she said.
Zingales and McLean also wondered why Twitter did not disclose that a board member of Pfizer had pushed to have these tweets sanctioned? As Zingales said, perhaps Gottlieb acted to have the Tweets de-amplified “out of some superior motive, but it’s funny that there’s also this conflict of interest,” i.e. that Pfizer and Gottlieb had serious financial incentives to deny the efficacy of natural immunization and child immunity to encourage more vaccinations (and the sale thereof).
Disclosure arises as one of the hosts’ main themes and criticisms of Twitter’s content moderation throughout their conversation. How does Twitter decide whom to ban or shadow ban? Big Tech, including Facebook and Google, often claim that the information it amplifies is algorithmically determined, but the Twitter Files reveal the role that Twitter higher ups and staff members played in determining narrative amplification and suppression. At the prompting of the FBI, Twitter buried the Hunter Biden laptop story, worried it was another narrative of Russian disinformation. What the Twitter Files reveal is the “randomness of the decision-making,” said McLean in reference to Trump’s ban from Twitter. Why did Twitter ban Trump out of fear that he would incite further violence after the January 6 Capitol riot but allow the Ayatollah Khamenei to keep his account after tweeting in 2018 that “Israel is a malignant cancerous tumor…that has to be removed and eradicated,” asked McLean.
For McLean and Zingales, the Twitter Files sparked concerns about how Twitter, with its “monopoly-like status” on information, as McLean put it, decides to moderate and amplify content. It raises questions about the platform’s exposure to special interests and government influence, including the FBI. So, why have liberals and so much of the traditional media ignored the files?
McLean and Zingales arrive at several possibilities. The first, McLean said, is that “as a society, people are increasingly unwilling to think for themselves. So, just like wearing masks became a sign of your political status, your view on the Twitter Files also became an immediate tell as to who you are as a person. And so in certain circles, if you give the Twitter Files any credence, well then obviously you’re a bad human being…”
McLean added that “it doesn’t help that [the Files were] released under Elon Musk, and Musk himself has been a complete hypocrite about this because, while ostensibly pushing for the right to free speech, he himself banned a journalist he didn’t like for disclosing, by the way, completely public records about where Musk’s private plane has been… [Musk] adds an element of sleaziness and lack of trustworthiness to the whole thing.”
The dubiousness of Musk’s role in the Files is compounded by the fact that he has exclusively given them to a select group of journalists and writers, said McLean. Several writers for mainstream outlets have questioned the intentions and credibility of the Files writers. McLean said Musk’s decision created a certain perception that he was attempting to curate the narratives that would spring forth from them. He didn’t provide the files to the New York Times or other mainstream media outlets, she noted.
Indeed, as Research Director Joan Donovan of the Harvard Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy wrote in Politico, it has been difficult for liberals and reporters to approach the Files when they suspect the information Musk is divulging is being cherry-picked (Musk said he has not read the Files before delivering them to the writers). Donovan added that mainstream media often have a rigorous editorial process that requires time to fact-check and contextualize reporting. It took the media months to prepare and report on the “Facebook Files,” a similar data dump that gave the public a peek into Facebook’s content moderation policies in 2021. If Musk really wanted the mainstream media to report on the Twitter Files, McLean suggested he should have just made the files public and told everyone “to find in it what you want.”
Zingales said another reason so much of society is ignoring the Twitter Files is that, in a world of social media, we are facing “information overload.” There was a time, he said, when people received their news from only a few outlets and these outlets tended to say the same thing. People sought out contrarian information. But now that people are exposed to reams of information every second, and a lot of this information comes from “crazies” and conspiratorialists, people employ ideology as an epistemological shortcut through the noise. There is not enough time and too much information, leading to the paradox “that in a world where information is abundant, we are all very ignorant,” he concluded.
What is to be done? Zingales suggested a mechanism that separates the platform where users post from those who have the power to amplify content, whom he calls the editors. Thus, users would make their posts as they normally would, but then different channels, not proprietarily attached to the platform, would decide whether or not to amplify these posts. Users would subscribe to these channels as they might subscribe to certain newsletters.
McLean doubted this idea would work in practice, and both agreed that any starting point must begin with transparency. Only this way, McLean said, can we answer the questions that the Twiter Files raise: “Is [the platform] ideological, is it political, how are decisions being made, who’s making them, who’s been most hurt by this, who’s been helped by this?” A deep investigation into Twitter’s inner workings, she said, would “abolish the idea that this is partisan somehow… I think [Twitter] faced a lot of pressure from Republicans to edit, to amplify, to do the same things that we are now aware that they faced pressure from Democrats to do.”
McLean and Zingales’ arguments echo the findings of the Stigler Committee on Digital Platforms, which released a report in 2019 that suggested platforms should disclose policies of non-neutrality that deliberately amplify or demote certain content as well as any relationships with politicians or political entities, including advocacy groups.
Articles represent the opinions of their writers, not necessarily those of the University of Chicago, the Booth School of Business, or its faculty.